Sunday, July 24, 2011

Division realignments and playoff

Lately there has been a lot of talk about division re-alignment and changing the MLB playoff format. When MLB expanded to 3 divisions in each league, I gave a lot about how to optimize pennant races.  I think now is a good time to revisit this.

Before I explain my proposal, here is a brief history of how we got to the current system:

Until 1969 whoever led their league in wins in the regular season advanced to the World Series.  No divisions, no wildcards.  It made the regular season extremely meaningful - pennant races could be exciting, knowing that one game could be the difference between going to the World Series and missing the playoffs entirely (see 1967 example under point #1 below).  It also often made the end of the season meaningless.  The Tigers made the World Series in 1968 by winning the pennant by 12 games.  I don't think there was a lot of drama in September of that year.

From 1969 to 1993, there were two divisions in each league, and the two winners would meet each other in a League Championship Series to determine the pennant winner and World Series entrant.  Having two divisions helped increase the possibility of two sets of teams in playoff races.  But a series between a team with a big lead in their division, and team fighting to win the other division was only meaningful to one of the teams.  Also, the second best team often missed the playoffs, while a weaker division winner advanced (you're all thinking the 1978 Red Sox, but what about the 95 win 1973 Dodgers watching as the Reds took on the 82 wins Mets in the NLCS?)  

In 1995, leagues expanded to 3 divisions and added a wildcard.   Now a good team stuck in a better division had a chance to make the playoffs  (A little too late for the 103 win 1993 Giants in the same NL West as the 104 win Braves).

I hated the wildcard when it was first introduced, because it took a little away from the aura of winning your division, or having the best overall record.   At the time I thought a better system would have been to only have the three division winners make the playoffs, and give a bye to the team with the best overall record.  This would give the possibility of 4 races down the stretch:  One for each division, and another between the division leaders for best overall record.  (Of course, I softened my stance after 2004)

After seeing this system in place for the last 15 years or so, here are my thoughts on how it can be improved keeping in mind that, in my opinion, an ideal system would ensure all of the following:

#1 Reward team with best overall record
This is best argued by the old-timers who remember that prior to expansion only a single team made the playoffs from each league and they met in the World Series.  So a late September series between 2 teams near the top of the standings were treated essentially like playoff games.  During the 1967 Impossible Dream season, Boston narrowly beat out the Minnesota and Detroit by 1 game to win the pennant.  Red Sox fans were not as lucky in 1948 when their team was tied with Cleveland and lost a 1 game playoff, or in 1949 when they finished 1 game behind the Yankees.  (As an aside, "Summer of '49" by David Halberstam is a must read.  It is about that season's pennant race, but is also a glimpse of a different era and the role baseball played in a post-war society.  Just a great book whether or not you're a Red Sox fan or even a baseball fan).  Today a team that has their division wrapped up early has no incentive to go all out to win down the stretch.  The last couple of weeks in September are used to rest the regulars and align the post-season rotation.

Imagine if the Yankees and Rangers each have 100 wins going into the last series of the season, and the Red Sox and Angels are at 95.  The divisions have been clinched, and there is a race for the wildcard.  The Rangers play the Angels 3 times, while we play the Orioles.  In the current system, Texas has no incentive to go all out to win, which gives the Angels an advantage over us for the wildcard.  Sure, it should be easier to beat the Orioles, but they may be going all out to eliminate us from the playoffs, while Texas will be throwing a  lineup full of AAA callups against the Angels.  Rewarding a team for having the best overall record eliminates this possibility.

#2 Don't arbitrarily reward division winners
A team should not get an advantage for winning a weak division with less wins than a wildcard team.
If the Yankees and Red Sox are tied with 100 wins and one gets the wildcard, why should they not have home field advantage over, say the Tigers and their 88 wins in the AL Central?

#3 Limit number of playoff teams
If MLB eliminated all divisions, and just had the top 8 teams in each league make the playoffs, that would increase the number of teams in races at the end of the season.   Using today's standings as an example, everyone in the AL except KC and Baltimore would be within 6 games of the playoffs.  Cubs and Houston would be the only teams out of it in the NL. Think of the excitement in places like Washington, Florida, and Oakland fighting to make the playoffs, not to mention the Mets and Blue Jays who would be in it.   Surely this would increase fan interest down the stretch?  No?
NO!  This isn't hockey.  We don't play 162 games just as an extended exhibition season to get into the 3 month playoff season!  If something like this were to happen, the entire regular season would become meaningless, except maybe for the fringe teams that would go all out to get that 8th playoff seed, only to surely get eliminated by a deserving team in the first round.  The Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies etc could all coast all season long, knowing they were all but assured a playoff spot anyhow.

So, how to develop a playoff system that meets all of these conditions?

I have some different suggestions - they all meet some of the criteria, but not all of it.

Option (A): 2 divisions + 1 wildcard
Let's go back to just two divisions, and add a wildcard team.  The team with the best overall record gets a bye into LCS.   (This is similar to the way I thought the system should have worked with 3 divisions)

AL East:  Boston 100 wins, NY 97 wins
AL West: Texas 95 wins, Detroit 92 wins

Texas plays New York in the 1st round (New York gets home field, due to more wins)
Winner plays Boston in LCS

  • Rewards team with best overall record
  • Playoff races for best overall record,  2 divisions and wildcard add to potential late season excitement
  • Team with best record may be rusty after layoff
  • Only 3 playoff teams - owners would never go for that!

Option (B) 3 divisions and 2 wildcards
- Team with best overall record gets bye into LCS
- 2 wildcard teams play other 2 division winners in 3 game first round- all games at home of team with best record
- 2 winners play each other in 5 game second round
- winner goes on to LCS

AL East:  Boston 100 wins, NY 95 wins, Tampa 90 wins
AL Central: Detroit 92 wins
AL West: Texas 97 wins

Round 1 (2 out of 3)
Tampa plays at Texas
Detroit plays at New York

Round 2 (3 out of 5)
2 winners play each other

LCS (4 out of 7)
winner of Round 2 vs. Boston

  • Really rewards team with best overall record with 2 byes! 
  • Playoff races for overall record, 3 divisions and 2 wildcards add to potential late season excitement
  • Playing in a tough division, not as much as a detriment, as 3rd place team can still make playoffs.
  • 5 playoff teams - owners will like this! 
  • Team with bye into LCS may be rusty after long layoff
  • No home games in 1st round may be unpopular.  Imagine a team such as the Pirates who get into the playoffs, and can't even reward their fans with a home playoff game.

Option (C):  2 divisions and 4 wildcards  
Let's call this the "NFL" method
- 2 Division winners get a first round bye
- Other 4 teams play each other in a wildcard single game take all
- 2 winners advance to the LDS
- 2 winners play each other in LCS

AL East:  Boston 100 wins, NY 95 wins, Detroit 92, Tampa 90 wins
AL West: Texas 97 wins, White Sox 90, Angels 85 wins

Round 1
Boston and Texas get byes
White Sox at Yankees
Tampa Bay at Detroit

Round 2 (4 of 7)
Detroit vs. Boston
New York vs. Texas

Round 3
Texas vs. Boston

  • Rewards 2 top teams  
  • Playoff races for getting seeded 1 or 2, as well as races for other 4 playoff spots add to potential late season excitement
  • Teams will go all out to win division - they won't want to settle for a wildcard
  • Extra playoff round and extra team - owners will like this! 
  • No extra reward for coming in 1st overall vs. 2nd.  Teams with big leads may slow down towards the end of season, as no large incentive to finish first.

So, what say you?  Do any of these sound better than the rumoured proposal of adding a wildcard team, and having the 2 wildcard teams play in a play-in game or series to determine who advances?  Please leave your comments or ideas below.

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